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Keeping your PhD on track

Introduction

As the PhD progresses, doctoral candidates develop more expertise in research management skills. Those who are more experienced research managers have the ability to recognise the research cycle and draw on a range of tools and techniques to aid progression. More experienced PhD researchers need to develop the ability to spot future research trends and anticipate the direction in which their research is headed. It is at this stage that self-reflection can be really helpful (see Domain B1.5 of the RDF) - in the interim stages, researchers are usually more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. Feedback (of all kinds) is vital at this stage of the PhD and it can be used to assess performance and enhance the quality of doctoral scholarship.

Keeping on track

Keeping the PhD on track is usually a priority for those in the interim phase of the PhD (see sections on The Research Cycle and The PhD Process in Planning Your Research). In this phase, a substantial part of the thesis will already be in progress, a few chapters may be drafted and most researchers will be in the midst of their data collection and/or fieldwork. It is usually during the interim stages of the research project that any issues and difficulties arise and where motivation is lost. Before moving forward it is important to assess progress made. One approach to doing this is to conduct a SWOT research analysis identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

A SWOT analysis will help identify how much progress has been made, and the strengths associated with the research project (and the researcher), any weaknesses, opportunities to make progress and anything that threatens or causes a barrier to progress. The results of this can be used to move forward to re-plan and re-prioritise the remaining stages of the thesis (please refer to the stages in the research cycle in the Planning Your Research section).

Managing multiple projects

There are multiple projects which run alongside a PhD and these usually present themselves in the interim phase of the research project - eg conference papers, publishing articles, teaching etc. Multiple projects need to be prioritized and treated as equally important to the thesis, since it is these that help researchers develop as professionals in their field. Effective systems and workflow management tools can be vital to the smooth running of a research project, especially in the second year. All projects need full attention which should be regular, focused and sufficient.

Motivation

Most completed doctoral students will talk about their experience of the 'research blues' or 'second year slump' and it is very common to become de-motivated in the middle of your research project.

"Bear in mind that being a research student is meant to be hard work, but also remember that you always have the right to be happy and fulfilled, to have an opinion, to ask questions and give and receive feedback. (The right to be happy is not the same as being happy all the time). And, most importantly, at all times you have the right to ask for what you want (but of course you might not get it)"

(S. Hutchinson, 'Beating the Research Blues'; in The Postgraduate's Companion, Sage 2008)

Essentially the PhD process has only one deliverable - to produce a thesis at the end. To many, this can seem very overwhelming and have a de-motivating effect on progress. But if you are able to break up this process into a series of projects or phases then it will certainly seem less daunting and more manageable. Please consult the Planning Your PhD section for more information on the Research Cycle, Setting Goals and Measuring Progress.

Expecting the Unexpected

Keeping on track is also about managing risks and expecting the unexpected. In addition to setting goals and objectives it's useful to spend a short space of time considering the "what if's" - this will help to assess the resilience of the research plan and put into place certain contingency plans to help overcome any obstacles that may hinder progress. Examples of unexpected risks are: a supervisor moves to a different University, a fieldwork trip is cancelled, little progress has been made with written work, a heavy teaching workload, difficulties accessing data.

Usually a research plan will need to be altered to take into account the unexpected. This means revisiting the research cycle and planning any outstanding phases according to new priorities. Please bear in mind that most researchers experience a shift in their research question and focus during the PhD - this is entirely natural and occurs in response to the enquiry-based nature of doctoral study. This is why it is important that plans are flexible enough to allow for change but rigid enough to ensure progress.